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Opinion | Niall Ferguson

Was the election a vote against ‘Hamilton’?

A scene from “Hamilton.’’Joan Marcus/PBS via AP

“Yo. Ev’ry action has an equal, opposite reaction.”

The box office-busting musical “Hamilton’’ could not have been more timely. Apart from anything else, it has reminded Americans that the politics of their republic has always been a blood sport. At least this year we didn’t have an actual duel of the sort that killed Alexander Hamilton in 1804.

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical is doubly significant in that it makes such a striking claim — namely that the heritage of the Founding Fathers now belongs to the country’s growing nonwhite population. That is the significance of his casting of African-Americans in the lead roles; of his use of hip-hop for most of the libretto; of Hamilton’s parting lines:


America, you great unfinished symphony, you sent for me.

You let me make a difference.

A place where even orphan immigrants can leave their fingerprints and rise up.

Yep, ev’ry action has an equal, opposite reaction. At 2:32 a.m. on Nov. 9, 2016, Donald Trump was declared by AP to be the 45th president-elect of the United States. To quote Hamilton again:

There are moments that the words don’t reach.

There is suffering too terrible to name.

You hold your child as tight as you can

and push away the unimaginable.

That is pretty much the way liberal America feels right now.

Chill. I was against Trump too. But the Founding Fathers provided for this eventuality. In the first of the Federalist Papers, the original Alexander Hamilton warned that “of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.”

That’s why he and the other founders devised a constitution based on the separation of powers and limited government, not to mention indirect election of the president via an electoral college. That’s why this is not Weimar America. That’s why parallels with the 1930s — a time of far more severe economic crisis — are wrong.


What is true is that Trump’s victory is just the biggest wave in a global tide of populism. At a party in Moscow on election night, a bizarre socialist realist painting was unveiled of Vladimir Putin, Trump, and the French National Front leader Marine Le Pen. So do please get ready for a new and unpredictable world order as Trump tears up President Obama’s foreign policy. And do please expect the populist tide to keep running next year, and not only in France. But stop predicting the death of the republic. I hate to break it to you, liberals, but this is how democracy in America was and is meant to work.

Partly because he so frequently spoke in derogatory terms about Mexicans and Muslims, partly because his campaign won the support of white supremacists, the standard liberal explanation for Trump’s victory is race. The argument is that Trump was the beneficiary of a “Whitelash.” There is an element of truth in this. But it is not a sufficient explanation.

True, Trump beat Clinton 62-33 percent in counties that are at least 85 percent white. In places where 97 percent or more of the population were born in America, he won 65-30 percent. And he won 70-27 percent in counties where at least 20 percent of residents describe themselves as being of “American” heritage.


Yet, according to exit polls, 29 percent of Hispanics voted for Trump, as did 29 percent of Asians and 37 percent of other racial groups. Even 1 in 12 African-Americans voted Republican this year. Overall, Trump was more appealing to minorities than Romney. If this was a Whitelash, then a lot of nonwhite voters are suffering from what Marxists used to call false consciousness.

So let’s try another explanation: class. Earlier this year, I cited Charles Murray’s seminal “Coming Apart’’ as the book that heralded Trump’s triumph, with its depiction of the gulf between two Americas: the cognitive elite (“Belmont”) and the underclass (“Fishtown”). The alienation of the latter, I argued, was the core of the Trump snowball.

Class turned out to matter at least as much as race. Trump romped home in counties where the median income is between $25,000 and $30,000 a year, while Clinton did better in wealthier counties. Clinton received less than 30 percent of the vote in counties with less than 20,000 people. Trump won 7 in 10 votes in counties where less than 20 percent of the population has a college degree, a 9-point improvement over Mitt Romney’s performance.

J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy’’ was the best seller of this election year, evoking as it did the dysfunctional lifestyle of an Appalachian hick family transplanted to Rust Belt Ohio. Well, the hillbillies were not too drunk or drugged to vote. Your income, your education, and your distance from the big city were at least as predictive of your vote in 2016 as your skin color.


Yet that, too, is not the whole story. Working-class votes alone would not have won Trump the presidency, any more than white votes alone. Lots of well-educated Americans voted for Trump as well, including 45 percent of college graduates and 37 percent of postgraduates. Plenty of members of the “1 percent” voted for him, too, even if they kept quiet about it. Beverly Hills voted Trump.

And let’s not forget a third factor: the generational politics that pits the old against the young all over the Western world. In this election, as in 2008 and 2012, the gap between the over-64s and the under-25s has been a chasm. More than half of seniors voted for Trump; a third of those aged 18 to 24. It’s no accident that Trump won both Florida and Pennsylvania, where more than 17 percent of the population is 65 or older. If only the under-25s had the vote, Trump would have won just five states.

Finally, and tragically for the candidate aiming to be the first woman president, it wasn’t just a girl thing. The race had a gender dimension, to be sure, but it was complicated. Married men leaned to Trump, 58-37 percent. Unmarried women favored Clinton, 62-33 percent. Married women and single men were evenly split. But whereas Trump received support from 53 percent of white women, Clinton got the votes of just 43 percent. Race — and class — dominated sex.


Ultimately, people made a choice when voting — especially those who voted Trump. The Trump campaign broke every rule in the book. There was virtually no get-out-the-vote ground game and precious little TV advertising. Nor was this victory won by the super PAC money that liberals used to complain about.

This was the choice on economics: On one side, a continuation of tax-and-spend, plus yet more regulation, aimed especially at banks and at energy and pharmaceutical companies. On the other, a complete policy regime change: immigration restriction, tariffs, and renegotiated trade agreements; the repatriation of offshore profits; reduced regulation; and higher spending on infrastructure and defense, combined with drastic reductions in taxes on income, capital gains, and corporations.

This was the choice on social issues: On one side, a continuation of affirmative action, campus cultural relativism, and feminism. On the other side, nativism, American exceptionalism, and non-Evangelical masculinity (as in, five children by three wives).

So was this, in some sense, a vote against “Hamilton,’’ with its celebration of multicultural America as heir to the American Revolution? Last week was certainly a difficult one for the composer of “Hamilton.’’ “2008 and 2012 were pretty doped,” he tweeted on election night. “We danced in Union Square. . . . This year, I’m trying to wrap my head around both outcomes. Scared as y’all.” But, he added, “We’ll get through it.” Asked if he was moving to Canada, he shot back: “I love this country, and there’s more work to do than ever.”

Yet when you think some more about Hamilton, you realize that Trump is in reality his heir. (Not wholly surprising, as both had a Scottish parent and called New York home.) Hamilton’s greatest achievement was to create a national system of credit for the fledgling United States and to adopt a whole range of measures — including protectionist tariffs, trade treaties (including one with Britain), and government investment in industry — to make sure its economy outpaced the world.

Ironically, that word “work” and its derivatives featured nine times in Trump’s victory speech, just as it’s a key word in the libretto of Hamilton. Hate him all you like, but America’s getting back to work. Democracy works. The constitution works. And the equal and opposite reaction to liberal overreach just happened.

Niall Ferguson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.